Strength is Superior

November 01, 2008

Well I've always known it. But now more than ever before is strength rearing its powerful head as the  King of Fitness, the Sultan of Health, the Premier of Wellness.

But before I lay at your feet some stunning and compelling evidence, a story.

A client came in the other day and told me about a new study that indicated that runners live longer than non runners. This client is a super guy, a lawyer and a strong family man. We've had, how should I put it, 'strong conversations' in the past about cholesterol and statins. He is the kind of client you dream about because, well, he cares.

The study he mentioned was not really a study. It was a survey taken over 21 years which indicated that people who run live longer than people who don't. He took this to mean running will make you live longer. As a family man he of course wants to be around to see his great-great grandkids - as I do. But like so many people who mean well but don't think critically enough he was easily misled by the survey.

I explained that people who run generally speaking don't smoke, drink less and eat better. Runners are also performing hard muscular work - work which lowers blood sugar, increases strength (a little), aids digestion, lowers blood pressure and increases mitochondria. This all leads to a greater sense of well being and less stress.

But at the same time it pulverizes your orthopedic health. Smokers claim that smoking calms their nerves. Should we all start smoking?

He was unfazed. "Fred" he said to me with the voice of a man who desperately wanted to believe but simply could not "I know you are a strong proponent of strength training and I see what it has done for me. I feel better than I ever have, my health is better, I've lost a ton of fat and build a large amount of muscle but..." He paused. I interjected "But what?" "I just think running will make me even fitter."

It is quite frustrating at times when the depth of the myths runs so deep in a client that it touches upon the impenetrable. I do believe that if the Lord himself popped into the room at that moment and said "Dan, Fred's right. You don't need to run if you're strength training." he'd be on the treadmill in the morning.

Lacking God's word, we do have

Download muscular_strength_mortality_in_men.pdf

In this paper we see that men (and there is every reason to believe this would be the case with women) men who were strong live longer and have less cancer and heart disease than men who were weak. (Details in the paper.)

The categories used were obese, lean, weak, strong, fit, fit and strong, weak and unfit, etc. The people in the strong and fit group fared the best. Strong was next, fit and weak next, and weak and unfit dead last of course. Obesity did factor in as having an ill effect on any of the parameters. In short, the leaner the better for the most part.

Now some experts have used this study to proclaim the superiority of doing strength training and aerobic exercise. But hold on a sec. The study did NOT separate the men who exercised from those who did not. BIG problem. Here's why.

We all know some men who are naturally strong. You shake their hand and they inadvertently crush your hand bones. They don't know their own strength. My father was such a person. 5'10" 240 pounds. Fat yes but not that fat with huge, mitt-like hands and wrists. (Alas I take after my mom.) He once asked me to get him a beer and I did. I handed him a bottle of Heineken. He took it, never taking his eyes of the Yankee game, and twisted on the cap. He said "Man this cap is tough" and POP it came off a not a split second later.

Heineken bottles are not twist offs.

But he never exercised a day in his life. He was over fat, drank a bit, smoked, ate like crap and died of liver and pancreatic cancer when he was 59.

So it is possible to be strong and unfit. Had he adopted a strength training program he'd have become even stronger, leaner and fit. I have never, ever met a person who was lean, who strength trained regularly and was unfit. I say to you all here and now that this is virtually impossible. The only way this could be is if there is underlying disease that has gone unnoticed.

The fit and lean men did NOT fare as well as the lean and strong. Fitness, as tested on a treadmill VO2 test as they did in this study, generally requires some degree of exercise. It is a less natural state of affairs than strength. I am indeed speculating here somewhat. Still, those who were strong and unfit fared better than those who were simply fit. This does tell you something.

To my mind, this paper indicates that men who strength train and are strong will fare as well as those who combine strength and aerobics because we know from other studies that strength training improves virtually all of the cardiorespiratory paramteres as aerobic exercise. See

Download phillips_2007.pdf

for the skinny on this issue.

Stay strong and prosper!